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In Slovakia, firewood back as energy crisis bites

Sona Otajovicova
November 4, 2022

With winter approaching and gas supplies from Russia dwindling, Slovaks looking for alternative ways to heat their homes are turning to firewood. Some fear the impact on the country's forests.

A man walks past two trailers full of wood in the forest in Polany, Slovakia, September 23, 2022
Loggers in Slovakia have been working overtime as the demand for firewood rises due to the energy crisisImage: Robert Nemeti/AA/picture alliance

Slovakia may seem like a dwarf among giants compared with other players on the energy market, but it is actually one of the major gas supply crossroads in Europe. Russian gas from Gazprom streams into Slovakia through the Bratstvo (Brotherhood) pipeline and continues on to the Czech Republic and Germany. The country also exports gas through pipelines leading to Austria and Italy.

Perhaps owing to its strategic position in Europe, Slovakia has become one of the EU countries that is most dependent on Russian gas and fossil fuels. Slovakia imports 85% of its natural gas from Russia, while Germany imports 65%.

The Druzhba (friendship) oil pipeline and Bratstvo (brotherhood) gas pipeline
The fall in gas supplies has seen more people turn to firewood to heat their homesImage: ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

No wonder, then, that the people of Slovakia are deeply concerned about the looming energy crisis and the drop in gas supplies from Russia.

With winter fast approaching, many are now turning to firewood.

Demand for firewood has almost doubled

According to the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture, the demand for firewood almost doubled in September compared with last year. Slovakia is not alone in this respect. Recently, the website Politico warned that European forests were facing "a very dark winter," with many NGOs and scientists worrying that high demand for firewood could increase illegal logging.

Workers sawing up freshly logged trees in Polany, Slovakia, September 23, 2022
Demand for firewood in Slovakia almost doubled this September compared with last yearImage: Robert Nemeti/AA/picture alliance

Deforestation has long been linked to the worsening effects of climate change, while burning firewood releases harmful pollutants that are dangerous for human health.

Logging an ongoing problem in Slovakia

In 2017, logging was recorded in over half the country's territory. Slovakia has now taken steps to ensure better forest maintenance, the most significant of which is its new "Law on National Parks." The legislation came into force in April and will limit logging in the parks to a minimum.

The EU Commission recently noted that forested areas in Slovakia have been growing, with forests now covering 41% of the country. The Slovak Ministry of Agriculture has promised to protect the forests and keep a close eye on any attempts at illegal logging.

Slovak MEP Martin Hojsik addresses the European Parliament, March 9, 2022
The impact on the environment of burning firewood at home is not as big as burning wood in power plants or heating plants, says Slovak MEP Martin HojsikImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

With a new system in place, the authorities are able to track where wood from Slovakia is being transported. The Slovak police and the Inspectorate for Forestry and Timber have also joined forces to conduct more thorough inspections of trucks carrying timber cargo.

Theft on the rise

Local media are nonetheless reporting an uptick in thefts. The Environmental Police say some of the cases could be linked directly to employees of the state-owned company LESY SR (Forests Slovakia). The company is run by the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the past such claims have been strongly denied by the ministry and LESY SR. The ministry says that it has made major changes to the management of the company to ensure transparency. Yet many experts, including former Agriculture Minister Jan Micovsky, remain doubtful. Micovsky retired from his post and the main governing party OL'ANO in 2021, expressing his concerns about transparency in the ministry.

Threat to forests exaggerated?

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Slovakia's environmentalists and agricultural experts agree that the high demand for firewood might not actually pose such a major threat to its forests. Environmentalist Erik Balaz argues that as long as the law is obeyed, the consequences will be mild.

Trees and forests in the High Tatra Mountain Range
The High Tatra Mountains: The Slovak Ministry of Agriculture has promised to protect the country's forests and keep a close eye on any attempts at illegal loggingImage: Rui Vale de Sousa/PantherMedia/IMAGO

"But problems might arise in those areas that are not officially forests, such as arable land or privately owned territories," Balaz told DW. "These are not covered by the law. Many forests are also managed regionally. It will depend on how the mayors approach the issue."

Ministry limits quantity of wood households can take

Slovak MEP Martin Hojsik (Renew Europe) agrees that it is not households that pose a threat to Slovakia's forests. "The effect of using firewood in your home is not as massive as it is from using it in power plants or heating plants," he told DW. "Many of them still use wood and get subsidies from the EU. That is the real issue: The EU should direct its money elsewhere."

The Slovak Ministry of Agriculture regulates the quantity of firewood households can take from the forest. The limit of 12 cubic meters aims to ensure that there is enough for everyone. The ministry says that demand is now dropping and that most households have already gathered enough firewood for themselves.

Green alternatives

Energy expert Jozef Badida notes that there are greener alternatives to firewood: "If the household wants to think about an alternative type of heating, for example through a heat pump, it first needs to invest in the renovation of the house," he told DW. "The recently launched Restore your House program is also intended to help reduce heating costs. Another interesting option is the installation of solar panels for hot water heating, which can, in turn, be subsidized through the Green Households program, financed by EU funds."

Slovakia lags behind many European countries in terms of its use of renewable energy. The state currently aims to produce 19% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The chairman of the Slovak Photovoltaic Industry Association, Jan Karaba, thinks that this goal should be more ambitious.

"In its new plan, Slovakia should aim for 32%. This goal is still reachable," he said in a recent statement to Slovak media. "Slovakia has massive potential in this area, mainly when it comes to solar and wind energy."

Even the EU Commission has criticized Slovakia's modest goals. In its most recent report on climate action in EU Member States from October 2021, the Commission states that "Slovakia's 2030 targets for primary and final energy consumption show low ambition."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

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